Alpine’s F1 newfound aggression may make for a slow start — and long-term payoff

ENSTONE, UK — If you were to define who in Formula One was the ‘most midfield’ team through 2023, the answer would undoubtedly be Alpine.

Apart from the highs of the podiums for Esteban Ocon in Monaco and Pierre Gasly at Zandvoort, the team essentially spent 2023 in no man’s land. It finished 160 points behind fifth, 92 points ahead of seventh. Comfortably quicker than the slowest quartet of teams, rarely quick enough to properly fight beyond the fringes of the points. With diminishing returns from the development of its car, it plateaued.

“It was quite a disappointing season last year, even though we’ve got a couple of trophies,” Gasly said. “We definitely want to do better.”

To do better, Alpine may need to do worse in 2024 — at least to begin with.

At the unveiling of its new A524 F1 car at its Enstone factory on Wednesday, the team called the design “bold” and “aggressive.” Every part of Alpine’s car for this year is new except for the steering wheel.

Yet the significant change in the car concept might put Alpine on the back foot compared to some of the other teams when the new season begins, as it learns how to get the best out of its new package.

“When you start from a blank piece of paper, from scratch basically, there’s always more risk,” Gasly said.

“But you’ve got to take a risk at some point if you want to get bigger rewards.”

Starting afresh

According to team technical director Matt Harman, you can trace the decision to go in such a different direction with the car design to October 2022, when Alpine was fighting McLaren most weeks en route to P4 in the championship. Around this time, the team started to explore new ideas, which escalated in the early part of last year.

Shifting direction can yield tremendous rewards. Aston Martin made a huge step through the off-season going into 2023, while McLaren did the same midway through last year, going from one of the slowest teams to one of the few to really push Red Bull.

As the limitations of its 2023 car became clear, chiefly the narrow operating window that meant it only worked well with particular setups or track layouts, Alpine set about changing its path. The result is that the A524 features a new front wing philosophy, a refined front suspension, a totally revised rear suspension, new braking systems to aid aerodynamic flow, an updated floor and a new rear wing designed to remedy last year’s drag issues that hurt its performance at high-speed tracks like Spa and Monza.

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A look at Alpine’s new rear suspension and wing. (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

“We’ve taken a very aggressive approach,” Harman said, claiming the team would be “relentlessly upgrading this car” through the season. “We have an awful lot of potential to extract, and we’ve not anywhere near achieved all of it just yet,” he added. “I look forward to it.”

Even the livery has changed. The design leans into the recent F1 weight-saving trend: predominantly bare black carbon, the blue of last year’s car scaled back to smaller patterns and trim. The blue will be swapped out for the pink of title sponsor BWT at eight races this year, keeping the tradition of inverting the design for select events in recent years.

What makes getting the car concept right this year extra important is the lack of change anticipated in 2025. Bruno Famin, Alpine’s VP of motorsports and F1 team principal, said there would likely be only a “mild evolution” of cars next year as all teams shift their resources and attention to the major overhaul that 2026’s new technical regimen will require.

“It was important to make a big step in 2024,” Famin said. “What will be important is our ability to develop a totally new car during the season.” He also admitted the team had to redo some of the FIA’s crash tests because of its aggressive design. “It’s just the normal process,” he said. “If you pass all the tests the first time, it means you have not been ambitious enough.”

Ocon conceded it was “possible” the team would be in for a tricky start. “The car is totally new,” he said. “When you usually do that, you normally take a step back.” But he understood the switch to gain bigger rewards down the line.

“It’s not necessarily that crucial where we start, but it’s going to be where we are going to finish.”

Continued change off-track, too

The cycle of changes at Alpine has been consistent. Famin is the fourth team principal in five seasons, following Otmar Szafnauer, Marcin Budkowski and Cyril Abiteboul. Each has come in and promised to start a new era, doing things differently and turning the Enstone-based team into an F1 front-runner. The mid-pack has remained its ceiling.

2023 was another year of disappointment on track that sparked significant change off of it. Even with the buzz of excitement around investment from figures including Ryan Reynolds, Rob McElhenney, Rory McIlroy, Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes, the mid-season exits of Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi, Szafnauer and long-serving sporting director Alan Permane made clear it was the start of a new cycle.

After naming him interim team principal last July, Alpine tasked Famin with enacting change. At the end of last year, he spoke about the need to “align the planets” at Enstone, bringing together the good he saw within the team. It’s a tricky task to do in-season.

The winter gave Famin the chance to put firmer fixes in place. Julian Rouse is the team’s permanent sporting director after his interim promotion from academy director last year proved popular, while two new chief operating officers — one based in Enstone, the other in Viry, Alpine’s French base — will start soon. These additions will free Famin up to focus more on day-to-day racing duties as team principal, a role that has also been made permanent.

“We still have a lot to improve everywhere, in all the departments,” he said. “I’m not happy, for sure. We have a lot of work to do to be able to fight at the front, which is our ambition. It’s people, organization, processes; it’s a better agility and efficiency. We have a lot of work to do.” Investment into new equipment and some infrastructure is already underway.

Action is replacing words. Ocon was impressed that upon his return after a winter spent in the gym, things that previously took a lot longer, like getting his race suit and car seat fit completed for the year, were done swiftly and efficiently. “In the place we are, we’re following the path and the improvements we need to take,” he said. “I hope that’s going to pay off on track.”

Pierre and Esteban

With Ocon and Gasly, Alpine is one of only four teams on the F1 grid that can boast a lineup of two grand prix winners. Not even McLaren or Aston Martin can boast that.

Both Alpine drivers are entering a contract year, and in the wake of Lewis Hamilton’s shock move to Ferrari for 2025, the market has been sent into a spin. Ocon’s name is certain to be linked to the open Mercedes seat, given he was previously considered as a replacement for Valtteri Bottas and still has management ties to Mercedes.

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Both Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon will drive on expiring contracts in 2024. (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

When The Athletic asked Ocon if he’d recently spoken to Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, the Frenchman laughed. “I’ve always had strong links with Mercedes,” he said. “I’m still a Mercedes junior driver, even if I’m not that junior anymore! I’m still contracted with them at some stage. It is how it is, we will see.

“At the moment, I’m totally dedicated to Alpine. That’s my focus. I need to do a good job on track as always. Every year is a crucial year in F1. It doesn’t matter if you have a contract or not; if you do not perform, you can be out. That’s how it is.”

Gasly claimed he was “aware of some talks with Ferrari” and Hamilton, and that it was “kept secret for quite a long time,” not commenting on how he knew. “It’s exciting for the driver market and for all of you guys (the media) that comes with it, which is normal,” Gasly said.

“Ultimately, for the sport, he’s the most successful driver of all time, joining a new project, a new challenge. I’m sure everybody will follow that very closely.”

The same is true for Alpine. Famin said the team was happy with the current lineup, and they were talking “very frequently about our relationship, before and after Hamilton’s move” and while there was a natural need to keep an eye on the market, the drivers weren’t a sticking point.

“For the time being, the key point is we are happy with our drivers,” he said. “We have a lot to do with the team and in developing the car, which is really the priority.”

Ocon and Gasly’s faith in Alpine could be tested early in the year, should the growing pains and challenges be particularly tough. But they know the team must tear up the script to escape midfield mediocrity.

Alpine is so often a team in transition. Clear intent in its 2024 plans could lay the foundations for it to finally make good on its plan to get among F1’s front-runners — even if it takes a little while longer to realize fully.

(Lead images: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

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